xmlns:og='http://ogp.me/ns#' The Font of Noelage: Education for a song

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Education for a song

   With everyone preoccupied, or perhaps overwhelmed, with the incessant and often trivialised news coverage of the September 7th  Federal election, I thought I would write about something very dear to my heart...Music in Schools.

Time Magazine, in its feature stories commemorating the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Junior's March on Washington on August 28, 1963, quoted Peter Yarrow, of  the famed folk group, Peter, Paul and Mary, saying, ''We sang 'If I had a Hammer.' They knew and they sang. And the moment was created not by the three of us in a performance but by a quarter of a million people gathering together and singing with us and saying, this moment belongs to us together. That's what singing together can do."

One of my great pleasures, as the newly appointed Primary School Principal at Donnybrook District High School in 1975, was to walk around the school just after 8-50am listening to the beautiful singing coming out of each and every classroom. That was the way the school day started way back then.

Of course I was lucky to become a principal at all because, about 18 years earlier, I had almost failed to graduate from Graylands Teachers College. In those days you could not graduate unless you had successfully passed tests in Year Seven Arithmetic, Year Seven Spelling, Dictation, English Grammar and MUSIC! Yes, indeed, if you did not pass a reasonably comprehensive music theory exam and demonstrate an ability to read music and play the recorder then you could not become a teacher in Western Australia.

You also needed an operator’s ticket for a 35 mm Bell and Howell film projector as well as a Bronze Life Saving Medallion and a St John’s Ambulance First Aid Certificate. I failed at my first attempt at the music exam. Fortunately the college had  remedial music classes and, after another two attempts, I finally passed Music and went out into the schools with my hard won Teachers Certificate.

In those days Western Australia had a first class Music Education programme. This was largely the result of Campbell-Egan’s excellent publication, “Music in Schools” and the general school culture which saw music as a very important part of a child’s development. By the end of their primary schooling every child in Western Australia could read music and play a musical instrument, even if it was only the lowly, much maligned recorder. They also knew about forty or fifty songs which they could sing from memory without the aid of any musical accompaniment whatsoever. At the same time principals knew then what they know now, that if a school operates efficient sports carnivals, has interesting  and musical assemblies and runs a successful school musical and/or end of year concert then the parents will give the school a very big tick.

In my very first appointment, to the old Central School in downtown Bunbury, my principal, Mr John Larson, left me in no doubt about how important he thought music was. “Mr Bourke,” he observed, as my 54 Year Four children marched from the quadrangle to the classroom,  “you can always sort the wheat from the chaff by looking at how well children march and how well they sing.” Mr Larson ran very successful sports carnivals and a hugely successful end of year Carols Night. At the time I made a mental note to practise marching my class to all future Phys. Ed. lessons and to tune in religiously each Friday morning to the ABC’s “Music in Schools” broadcasts.

Despite my lack of success in the music theory department at Graylands, I really loved music and enjoyed singing each day with my children. Those ABC broadcasts were an outstanding music education resource. Each week the gifted and musically talented ABC presenters would teach a new song and revise those learnt in previous weeks. This meant that a class would learn about thirty to forty songs each year, every year.

In my early years of teaching, the school day always started with God, Queen and Country. Each teacher would lead the class in reciting The Lord’s Prayer, then the class would sing God Save the Queen, which was our National anthem at the time. This would be followed by an Australian song such as My Country, The Song of Australia, Waltzing Matilda  or Advance Australia Fair, which didn’t become our country’s National Anthem till Gough Whitlam said it was in 1974. After that it was the children’s choice and various students would put in requests for one of the songs from the ABC Songbook. What a great way to start the school day; with a song in your heart.

Interestingly, Malcolm Fraser changed Australia's formal, official anthem back to God Save the Queen in 1976 and then Bob Hawke, in 1984, made Advance Australia Fair  our formal national anthem. Of course, if you started school with The Lord’s Prayer today it is highly likely the “Multi Cultural Anti Offense to Anyone’s Ethnic, Religious, Language or Diet Preference Group Thought Police” would march you off to the nearest gibbet to be hung, drawn and quartered; in the nicest possible way, of course. Hardly any children today would know, or be able to recite, the Lord's Prayer anyhow.

In 1978 things began to change. As a means to providing some DOTT time for primary teachers, the Education Department began appointing Music Specialist Teachers to schools. This was good from two points of view: It provided children with skilled and enthusiastic music teachers and it gave class teachers an hour each week to do things other than teaching.

The unfortunate downside, however, was that it eventually took singing out of the classrooms. The Music Specialists would have loved the class teachers to practise the songs with the children but, before too long, the class teachers stopped singing along with their children each morning because they felt singing was something that children did with the Music Specialist in the Music Room. By the early 1980s I could walk around the school just after 9-00am and there would be no singing whatsoever. An eerie quite had descended on the school.  They say that music hath charm to soothe the savage breast. I often wonder if school behaviour would improve if once more the children could start each day with a song...or two or three or four.

Well, there is plenty of evidence to show that music does affect behaviour and thinking. The Daily Mail, (September 19, 2013) reported Dr Madelaine Ohls as saying that researchers at West London University assessed 48 boys and girls, all aged four, and found that singing and playing an instrument helped improve behaviour and problem solving skills.

"It promoted their ability to think beyond themselves," said Dr Ohl.

"Those in the music group were 33 times more likely to stop and help a  classmate in a later game and six times more likely to work as part of a team."

I know that there are many primary schools that are running run very effective music programmes, but even in these schools there is no singing in the classroom and certinly not on a daily basis.What better way to promote an harmonious and pleasant learning environment that to start each day with  song.

In recent times, NAPLAN has been blamed for further restricting music and the arts as some schools have placed more and more emphasis and time on developing literacy and numeracy skills. I recently heard Australia’s most famous music teacher, Dr Richard Gill, speaking passionately on ABC radio about the sorry state of music education in Australia. Richard Gill has been involved in teaching music in Australia for over fifty years and is currently the Director of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. He believes that singing is the basis for all music learning and this should eventually lead students to playing a musical instrument and composing their own music.

Richard Gill followed up his theme a few days later in a speech he gave to a group of Specialist Music Teachers in Sydney. The Sydney Morning Herald (August 12, 2013) reported him at this meeting quoting  from the Gonski Report that Australian education  “Apart from some scattered pockets of excellence in some state and private schools, had significant gaps between the highest and lowest performing students. This performance gap is far greater in Australia than in many OECD countries, particularly those with high performing school systems.”

Richard Gill believes a decline in Music Education is the reason for these significant gaps in performance in Australian schools and he firmly believes that improved Music Education is the way to rectify the matter.

“Teaching music in schools is the way to bridge the performance gap highlighted by Gonski,” says Gill. “It is no longer anecdotal, but a matter of scientifically proven fact, that children who have good strong music teaching have advantages in all other areas of learning."

He goes on to argue that Physical Education will have a similar effect to Music Education on improving overall education performance. He believes that Music and Physical Education should bookend the school curriculum. Of course, this was also the view of the Ancient Greeks, whose early education system concentrated chiefly on teaching young boys Physical Education and Music. The Greeks also saw the close realationship between music and mathematics.

Richard Gill is not alone in believing that music can improve overall school performance. The online version of Science Daily ran an article on March 16, 2009, stating that “Music Education Can Help Children Improve Reading Skills.” This article stated that “children exposed to continual music tuition in complex rhythmic, tonal and practical skills, display superior cognitive performance in reading skills compared with non musically trained peers, according to a study published in the journal Psychology of Music.”

US education writer, Zrinka Peters, in her May 23, 2013, online article, “How Music Can Help Your Children Learn”, says there is a strong body of evidence that ongoing Music Education does help children’s overall academic performance. She cites a study at McMaster University, Toronto, Canada, which compared two similar groups of children aged between 4 and 6 years old. “One group took Suzuki music lessons the other group had no music instruction at all. The results, published in the online journal “Brain’ on September 6, 2006, showed that the Suzuki group excelled over their  peer group in memory skills as well as in non musical abilities such as literacy, numeracy and even IQ.”

There is some debate as to whether music education can actually increase IQ. This became a very hot topic when the Mozart Effect was first published in 1991 by Alfred Tomatsis. He used Mozart’s music as a cure for various disorders. Tomatsis’ finding were popularised for commercial gain by Don Campbell, who basically said listening to Mozart will make you smarter. Later researchers, notably Rauscher, Shaw and Ky (1993) scotched this notion, but they did agree that listening to Mozart does boost thinking and reasoning skills for about 15 minutes. Reseach on the effect of music on cognitive skills is ongoing. Some researchers think that not just Mozart, but any music of a person’s choice does improve thinking skills. 

My own experience with the phenomena  of musical effect was interesting and occurred when I was teaching some science classes with Year 7 students at Donnybrook District High School in 1981. I challenged the children to devise an experiment which involved controlling variables. Two girls decided to play different sorts of music to three tomato bushes and gauge the results.

Three similar tomato bushes were planted in three similar pots with soil from the same potting mix. The pots were placed apart from each other in a sunny, wind protected position in the open air library courtyard. They were provided with equal amounts of water each school day. Every lunch time the girls would visit the three tomato bushes and used cassette recorders to play music to each plant in turn for exactly ten minutes. To one plant they played light classical music, including some by Mozart. The second plant was played ballads by crooners such as Bing Crosby, Perry Como and Frank Sinatra. The third plant received a strong dose of Rock ‘n Roll, mainly featuring Elvis Presley and the Rolling Stones.

At the end of the growing period the light classical tomatoes were taller, healthier looking and had the most fruit. Next came the crooners’ tomato bush, followed by the Rock ‘n Roll bush, which was smaller and had the least fruit. My conclusion to all this was that the first bush had thrived on classical music. However, the two girls believed that the Rock ‘n Roll bush had been so entranced by Elvis and the Stones that it had forgotten about its job of producing tomatoes.

At least my three students had better results that Dorothy Rettalack, at teacher at Buel College in the USA. In 1977 Mrs Retallack played Bach to one group of plants and Metallica and Led Zerpplin to another group. The Bach group thrived and the heavy metal group died.

Obviously, there will invariably be differences of opinion on some science outcomes, but there does appear to be evidence out there that music has a beneficial effect on human performance. Without Arts Education and especially Music Education, Richard Gill says “Australia will remain in danger of being a dull, unimaginative nation.”

On the brighter side, he concluded his speech in Sydney by saying that “An education system that gave due emphasis to Music and Physical Education would see students endowed with creative thinking and imaginative problem solving skills. This would produce classrooms full of engaged and interested minds with the capacity to think, perceive, analyse and act upon ideas” Well, it certainly worked for those ancient Athenian Greeks and western civilization has been grateful ever since.

And how much nicer would it be for principals today to walk around their schools each morning, hearing young voices raised in joyful song. Especially if they knew it was going to add ten percent to their school’s NAPLAN scores.

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